Women in photography: Allison Joyce "couldn't just be an observer"

Two 10-year-old Bangladeshi girls smile as they drag their surfboards into the sea, with the beachfront and hotels of Cox’s Bazar in the background.
The Bangladeshi surf girls are a group of eight outgoing girls ranging in age from 10 to 13 years old, living and working in Cox's Bazar, a coastal town in the South East of Bangladesh. Poverty forced them into early adulthood, since they have to work every day selling jewellery and eggs on the beach to help support their families. But surfer, lifeguard and beach worker Rashed Alam brought fun into their lives by teaching the girls to surf and skateboard after work. Here, 10-year-old girls Aisha and Johanara surf in the waters of Cox's Bazar, in the Bay of Bengal. Taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark II with a Canon EF 50mm f/1.4 USM lens. © Allison Joyce/Redux

Allison Joyce's work explores human rights stories, gender issues and tales of empowerment that challenge perceptions of South Asia as a region plagued by poverty and division. Back in 2009, the Canon-shooting photographer swapped bustling New York City newsrooms for life as a stringer – a freelance photojournalist regularly contributing to news organisations – in Bangladesh and India, working for Getty Images, international publications, news agencies, commercial clients and NGOs. Soon her physical presence turned into an emotional attachment. Here, she talks about crossing the line between photojournalist observer and campaigner.

Allison grew up in Boston and began her career in New York City as a photographer for the Daily News and the New York Post, cutting her journalistic teeth on the local 24-hour news cycle. "In one day I could go from covering a big national news story, to a press conference, to a woman whose cat was rescued by firefighters, to a portrait session, and then to a restaurant review. It was a fantastic education," she says.

But in 2009, Allison made the decision to leave New York to travel to South Asia, which led to her new life as a stringer in the region. "I backpacked for six months alone, working on photo stories in India and Bangladesh. They were places where I could travel on a shoestring budget for a long time while providing the kind of stories I wanted to tell. Those six months changed my life. I realised I didn't want to be a US-based freelancer, I wanted to tell stories in South Asia. I've been bouncing back and forth between Bangladesh and India ever since."

Telling unexpected stories

Young Bangladeshi woman Ali Moti stands in a small, dark room with a hammock over a bed.
Ali Moti is photographed in her home in Moturapur in the Sundarbans, Bangladesh, a year after her husband Nabo Kumar Mandol was killed by a tiger while fishing in the canal. She doesn't know how old she is, but guesses she is 25. Ali now works to support herself, her two children, brother and sister-in-law. She has a job repairing the roads in her town and earns 1,500 Taka (US$14) per week. Taken on a Canon EOS 5D, from Allison's Tiger Widows series. © Allison Joyce/Redux
Christian Ziegler’s

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Allison's work is a combination of assignments for Getty Images and long-form stories that she has pursued herself. "Around 80-90% of the stories I do here are things that are really near and dear to my heart," she continues. "I feel like there's a lot of media attention on India, but I tend to go to the stories that most people aren't covering. Bangladesh has the same amount of interesting stories as India, and they too deserve to be told."

Her investment in the country stems from her passion for its beautiful landscapes and for the Bangladeshi people. "I think the people are the most hospitable and warm-hearted I've ever met, and the countryside is gorgeous – it's natural, untouched, and the greenest green that you've ever seen, with blue rivers everywhere," she reflects. "The stories that I cover are stories that haven't been told before. I don't want to sound like a clichéd photojournalist, but I feel that some of these stories have the potential to make a difference."

The subject of one of her earliest stories in Bangladesh was the Tiger Widows in the Sundarbans, a vast forest on the coast of the Bay of Bengal. "I originally went there to cover a different story, but by chance came across a funeral for a man who had been killed by a tiger. When we began to ask questions, we discovered that there had been an increase in tiger attacks over the past couple of years due to climate change, which is making the fields more salty. Increasing numbers of people are being pushed into the forest for their livelihood, putting them at greater risk. I found it fascinating. I also found that everybody had a really interesting story, which got me excited about working on social issues there."

The Bangladesh surf girls

Bangladeshi surf girl Johanara walks out of the sea onto the beach, carrying a surfboard over her head. The sun behind her silhouettes her shape.
Johanara walks with her surfboard in Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh. As the surf girls got older, men harassed them on the beach where they worked and their parents encouraged them to get married. Allison helped to raise money for the girls, which has enabled them to enrol in school and stop working on the beach full time. For many of them, they are the first in their families to go to school. Taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark II with a Canon EF 24mm f/1.4L USM lens. © Allison Joyce/Redux

In 2014, Allison's incredible project about teenage girls who learnt to surf in Bangladesh was published all over the world, in magazines such as TIME and National Geographic. "It started as a small assignment for Getty to cover the surf scene in Cox's Bazar," she explains. "I spent three or four days there shooting the men at the surf club and their daily lives. However, some time later, I learned that one of the guys had taken the little beach girls (who sell snacks and souvenirs) under his wing and began teaching them how to surf and skateboard. I hadn't seen girls like this anywhere in South Asia – guys would harass them on the beach, and they would fight back. I was so amazed. At the time I was still fairly new to Bangladesh, but was quickly learning how strongly patriarchal the country is, so I thought to myself: 'Wow, girls surfing is an amazing story.'

"It turned into a long-term project for me and I started visiting them a couple of times a year. It became one of those stories where I decided that I couldn't just be an observer. So last year and the year before, when the girls on the beach weren't making enough money to eat or feed their families, I started a fundraiser website to help them get food each month."

It is generally considered inappropriate to become involved with your subjects when working as a photojournalist, but Allison is pragmatic. "I have affected the story, and I think the only thing I can do is be really upfront about that. I was a photojournalism purist for a long time, but it's easier said than done. You're a human first and once you see a starving person, you have to make a decision."

Helping vulnerable girls and women

Young girls at the Veerni Institute work together in exercise books, with text books in front of them.
Girls study at the Veerni Institute for child brides in Rajasthan, India. Girls may be as young as nine or 10 when they are married, but don't usually go to live with their husbands until they're around 15. If parents agree to delay the delivery of their daughter to her in-laws, the Veerni Institute will give her a free education, meals, and board. Taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark III with a Canon EF 24mm f/1.4L USM lens. © Allison Joyce

As well as her long-term, emotionally intense project with the Bangladesh surf girls, Allison has enjoyed some rewarding one-off commissions. In 2016, a commission for Marie Claire magazine sent her to photograph the Veerni Institute, a private charity in Rajasthan, India, dedicated to helping girls in rural villages at risk of child marriage.

"The girls are given boarding, private tutors, healthy food to eat, and are sent to a fantastic private school," she says. "I Ioved covering that story because so often it's what's going wrong that is being talked about." Many of the girls who have passed through the boarding school have gone on to higher education, winning scholarships to fund their university studies.

Two Bangladeshi girls cry together on a bunk bed, one sat on the bed and the other kneeling on the floor, her head in her friend’s lap.
Bangladeshi girls who were trafficked into Indian brothels break down and cry inside the Rescue Foundation/Free a Girl rehabilitation home in Mumbai, India, when they find out that the Bangladesh high commission in Mumbai has denied their travel permits to return home. Taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark II with a Canon EF 50mm f/1.4 USM lens. © Allison Joyce

Allison is now firmly embedded in South Asia and is zealously committed to her work there. "I've been really lucky the past few years to get assignments where an editor will email me and say, 'Can you go cover this story?' and in this region it's invariably something I care about.

"Recently, I've been fortunate enough to get a grant from an NGO that has enabled me to spend the past seven months working on a story about sex trafficking. It's the first time that I've had funding that has allowed me to cover a story in-depth and in my control for such a long period of time."

Bangladesh may be a small country, but Allison Joyce and her work will continue to make sure we keep paying attention to it and its people.

Autor Lottie Davies

Allison Joyce's kitbag

The key kit pros use to take their photographs

American photographer Allison Joyce takes a photograph of herself in a mirror, holding a Canon DSLR, next to a young Asian girl who is brushing her hair.


Canon EOS 5D Mark III

A full-frame 22.3MP DSLR with 61-point autofocus and 6fps continuous shooting, this camera offers manual control over everything, plus a built-in HDR mode.


Canon EF 50mm f/1.4 USM

With its fast maximum aperture and rapid focusing system, this compact, high-performance standard lens can be relied on for superb quality in any field of photography.


Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8L II USM

This professional-quality standard zoom lens offers outstanding image sharpness and a robust L-series build. Its constant f/2.8 aperture enables you to take superb photos even in low light, and to control depth of field with ease.

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